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Best Bets 2005: CES Does Vegas

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BARD with iPod
Avantgarde MetaDuo
ThiPhi Audio Mojo Speakers and Subwoofer
Teac SL-D88 CD/Radio

In true Las Vegas bright-lights-and-neon style, the recent Consumer Electronics Show, annually the largest trade spectacle hosted by Sin City, attracted 140,000 attendees-electronics retailers, industry folk, engineers and press-to its 1.531 million square feet-nearly 300 football fields-of exhibit space.

In Las Vegas everything is bigger than life. How about the $500,000 home theater setup that incorporated a modest little iPod as one of the source components?

Clearly there was plenty to see and hear, and not all was quite so bombastic. In fact, much of the best music and sound I heard came from comparatively modest offerings.

For example, Triangle Loudspeakers from France continues to produce stupefying products that perform well beyond their price points. Triangle’s new version of the Celius ($2,695; triangle-fr.com) was absolutely musical and immediately captivating, drawing me into the music within seconds, coaxing me firmly into rapt attention to the music, not the sound. There was an unwavering solidity when they reproduced a piano and plenty of aural clues about the air moving through and out of the bell of an alto sax; there was a deep, profound bottom that was satisfyingly tuneful. Shirley Horn’s voice was believable and right-on. They produced excellent imaging so that one could identify the position and “shape” of each and every instrument. But most important, I felt connected with the music itself; the speakers wrapped the tune around me like a warm coat, comforting and soothing. Triangle has produced another absolute winner at a very reasonable price.

Teac had some interesting products for nostalgia buffs: a full line of retro-styled radios carefully modeled after the tabletop radio sets of the 1940s, though most of these new units include a CD player and a digital clock, and one included a belt-drive turntable instead of the digital stuff. The visual allure of these babies was impossible to resist. Another cool Teac product was a one-piece unit, the GF-350 ($449; teac.com), that was a radio/turntable with a unique twist: it included a CD recorder designed to allow CD burning directly from LPs. It even lets you manually insert track indexing during the burn so that your new CDs can be accessed track by track. Now that was cool.

Esoteric is Teac’s ultimate lineup and features its creme de la creme products. At CES the company was running its top-of-the-line equipment consisting of, among other things, the only monoblock DACs (digital-to-analogue-converters) in the industry and a very hefty CD transport that weighs 61 pounds. All of these components are built tough. And of course the sound was spectacular, as one might expect from this well-regarded branch of the stalwart Teac corporation. It’s a system you could design your house around.

ThiPhi, a new upstart company from New York, showed off some nifty new speaker ideas. Wacked-out design, yes, like a couple of stacked tin cans lying on their sides, but surprisingly good sound. This Mojo system ($1,100; thiphiaudio.com) also includes two 12-inch cube-shaped subs and is ideal for those with domestic space issues. And they rocked like crazy. A drum solo had plenty of attack, a crisp snare sound and a fat, proper tone for the toms. Surprisingly, the system delivered enough bottom to make my chair vibrate. Don’t laugh at the small package, this is serious stuff.

On a larger scale, Avantgarde Acoustic introduced its MetaDuo ($69,970; avantgarde-usa.com), which is a synthesis of the company’s Duo and BassHorn models for those who don’t have the real estate for those separates. These truly captured the dynamic transients of live music and displayed the power and “bulk” of a real performance. They were extremely accurate and, accordingly, demanded attention. They presented all the bloom and natural decay of live music, creating one of the closest proximities to the sensation of the real thing I’ve ever heard from an audio system-compelling and entrancing.

One very cool room showed off the Hovland Radia amp ($9,500; hovlandcompany.com) with the Avalon Eidolon Diamond speakers ($33,000; avalonacoustics.com), through which I heard sculpted, 3D vocals and piano on a Sarah Vaughn cut; there was a big, open, natural sound with plenty of ambience surrounding the musicians. On a nuevo flamenco duet it was a cinch to follow the intricate virtuoso guitar and bass lines, and the melody and rhythm of the music came through clear as a bell. I could find absolutely nothing wrong with this combination. By the way, the styling of this amp, as with all Hovland electronics, is absolutely beautiful. It sports a translucent glass fascia with blue backlighting-Hovland has the visuals and the sound down perfectly.

New to these shores is the Caliburn turntable ($50,000: continuumaudiolabs.com) from Continuum Audio in Australia. Another looker, it has a futuristic retro feel, with stunning metal work that shines like the bumper of a cherry ’55 Chevy. It weighs 150 pounds and the platter alone comes in at 85. That heavy platter is supported with a maglev system that creates an effective net weight of ounces instead of pounds for the belt drive mechanism to make the thing spin with practically no effort whatsoever. It also features a revolutionary tone arm made from a secret organic material. It played some Miles Davis to great effect and kept everyone in the room glued to the music.

Another relative newcomer to our fair nation are speakers produced by Usher, a Taiwanese company that has employed audioland legend Dr. Joseph D’Appolito to assist with much of the design of the company’s extensive line of products. I listened to the X-719 speakers ($1,200; usheraudio.com), a bookshelf model that made no excuses for its size, but rather, just got down to the business of making music. The U.S. distributor promised a review pair will be headed my way in the near future to enable a more thorough examination in these pages.

In the Genesis room I heard the new 6.1e ($6,600; genesisloudspeakers.com) powered by the company’s new tube-based monoblock amps, the M50s ($3,995/pair). First of all, this speaker’s exterior design is stunning-exquisite cabinetwork and an unusual hourglass figure. Playing one of my standard demo tracks, Holly Cole’s “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” from her all-Tom Waits disc Temptation, I could really feel every ounce of emotion the singer invested in this recording. It was chilling. I can’t wait to hear these speakers again. (By the way, I tried to audition most equipment using the same few selections so I could get a better idea of the differences between systems by comparing apples to apples, at least in terms of the source material.)

For some reason, the British Isles have numerous exceptional manufacturers of elegantly simple loudspeakers. Here are four that displayed at CES.

Spendor, was showing off its model S8e ($2,999: spendoraudio.com), a simple two-way design that allows nothing to get in the way of the music and it certainly sounded that way; this also helped create a seamless integration between the tweeter and the mid/woofer driver. This is one you can listen to all day without tiring of the sound; the music becomes so enchanting, you just simply don’t want to get up. The Spendor S9e ($4,999) produced a delightful taut, properly tuneful bass, nothing boomy or flabby and fluid, silky mids. Playing some wonderful jazz vocals, they create a holographic image of the singer, solid and palpable.

Wharfedale (iagamerica.com) introduced several new products in newly updated versions of its various product lines and the initial impressions were very positive: first-rate cabinetry, improved drivers and beefed-up internal design. The upper echelon Opus series has the cosmetics of speakers at least triple their price tag, while even the value-laden Diamond 9 series belies its very reasonable price spread. We’ll report in more detail soon as they’ve promised to send samples for in-depth evaluation.

Speaking of royalty, the Quad ESL 989 full-range electrostatic speaker ($8,650 to $9,500 depending on finish; iagamerica.com) is the heir to the throne long held by its grandparent, the Quad ESL 63, deemed by many audiophiles to be one of the best sounding speakers ever produced. Appropriately, the 989s were nothing less than commanding. I heard my dear Holly Cole disc in full-blown Cinerama sound-that is, a big, wide-screen image via an immense soundstage; the sonics were three-dimensional. More on these also in a future column.

Totem Acoustic made its usual great music with the Totem Mani-2 Signature ($4,595; totemacoustic.com), which again proved that great things come in small packages. This modest-sized, but extremely handsome box was unbelievable in its level of musical reproduction, but I’ve grown to expect that from the wizards at this “dedicated to music” company. This was another one of those rooms where I could’ve spent an entire day listening to jazz. We’ll be hearing much more about Totem in the coming months.

Flexing some German design muscle was Burmester, sort of the Mercedes Benz of the audio world-weighty and ultranimble at the same time with a cost-is-no-object determination to produce products that hover at the top of the category. The company’s system produced riveting sound, as always. Playing discs I knew well, details appeared that I’d never heard, and the authority of the sound was absolute. The Burmester system created a big-as-life presentation of music achieved by very few manufacturers-though it also handled the whispery nuances with kid gloves. Burmester’s system was based around its 808 MK5 preamplifier ($25,495; burmester.de), the 911 MK3 Mono Amplifiers ($19,495 each), the 001 Belt Drive CD Player ($14,995) and the prototype of the new B100 Loudspeaker ($70,000 estimated). Wow is about all you can say when you hear this stuff.

Adrian Butts of Tetra and John DeVore of DeVore Fidelity, two of the hippest, most laid-back, unassuming speaker dudes, both tremendous jazz fans, are guys you can really enjoy hanging out with. And both happen to design some right-on-the-money, honest speakers. DeVore had his new Gibbon Super 8 ($4,000 to $5,000 depending on finish; devorefidelity.com), which were good mojo-producing boxes, making Mingus sound about as good as possible. Adrian’s Live 405s ($4,200; tetraspeakers.com) exhibited that sweet Tetra magic: seamless soundstage, pinpoint imaging and that cool disappearing act in which the music is just there, with no reference to the boxes.

Near the end of my tour I wandered into what turned out to be one of my favorite sounds at the show in a room hosted by the deHavilland Electric Amplifier Company. Designer Kara Chaffee was showing off her best work, the GM70 monoblock amplifiers ($8,995; dehavillandhifi.com). This is built around the GM70 triode tube-which was originally built for Soviet tanks, so there is no question of its reliability and strength. Around this oddly sourced tube, she has designed an amazing musical instrument that took my breath away. It was the only system I heard that could properly handle the complexities of a drum-heavy Brazilian samba recording, projecting the individual voices of the dozens of variously pitched percussion instruments layered throughout the tune. I was in awe of that achievement.

The field of television devices is evolving so quickly-plummeting prices and soaring quality-that it’s nearly impossible to keep up with the latest products. But Dwin Electronics hosted one video booth I could not resist stopping at-yeah, I’d never heard of them either. But passing by the company’s display I could have sworn I was looking through an open window into a live concert hall-and there, a few feet away was Diana Krall in the flesh. The China Doll nature of her skin was more seductive than ever, likewise those expressive eyebrows. I couldn’t even hear the music and didn’t care. Dwin has a comprehensive lineup of products from plasmas to projectors and video processors. The 50-inch Plasmaimage HD-150 ($9,999 including the outboard video processor; dwin.com) is the screen that caught my eye first-it offers amazing definition and crispness with not even a hint of scan lines or other video artifacts. This is surely the finest plasma image I’ve seen anywhere. The TransVision 4 DLP projector ($6,495 including outboard video processor) being demonstrated was unbelievable. I almost jumped into the screen, it was so lifelike and real. I’ve never experienced video so alive and true to the real colors of the world around us, including those hard-to-get-perfect skin tones.

Picking up the industry buzz about the convergence of the computer and audio, Cambridge Audio introduced a very affordable, and versatile digital music server, the Azur 640H ($1,395; cambridgeaudio.com). Here’s the nutshell version: it’s a CD player and burner with a 160 Gigabyte AV-quality hard drive, plus proprietary AudioFile software that manages the storage, transfer and playback of your music library. That big ol’ drive can store 300 uncompressed CDs or 3000 compressed CDs; you choose the compression mode when you load music onto the drive. And like Apple’s iTunes, you can compile playlists to suit your needs-for kicking back at home for days at a time of nonstop tunes, or you can burn custom CDs for those long roadtrips. Hook it up to your PC or Mac and play back your collection stored in iTunes or other digital jukebox systems; you can burn CDs from those as well. Good lord, describing everything this thing can do would take up several more pages, best move onto other products.

On the iPod front I stumbled onto a couple of interesting products. Avantgarde Acoustic is touting its self-powered Solo ($9,970) as a great speaker system for the iPod. The company’s display featured the iPod on a classy black pedestal topped with a clear plexiglass cover, not unlike a museum display. On either side was a jet-black Solo, each including a 250 built-in amp. This is a great system for a small space: a condo, an apartment or a small home. The sound was predictably impressive.

Another iPod audio enhancement came from British BardAudio. The company’s Bardone transmitter ($550; mayaudio.com) plugs into your sound source-CD player, computer or iPod-and transmits sound in high quality uncompressed digital audio to any number of amplifiers or stereo systems equipped with a Bardone receiver ($495 or $995 for receiver and transmitter), thus eliminating the need for wires from the iPod to those devices. The BardUSB ($695) looks like a tiny flash memory stick and transmits directly from your computer’s USB port to the Bard receiver also. Now here is the neat thing: the Bardthree ($950) is about the size of a beer can. It receives signals from either of these transmitters, and runs them through a quite decent 25-watt digital amplifier built into the tiny box, then feeds that signal to your speakers of choice via traditional speaker cable. This means you can have your iPod in your home office, for example, and transmit the signal to this little jewel, which then feeds the music to a pair of compact bookshelf speakers in your bedroom, kitchen, garage or wherever; no wires except from the little white cube to the speakers. I think this concept offers a glimpse of what the future holds for home audio: more wireless operation creating more choices for component and speaker placement throughout the home or office.

Vegas does it big all right. Big sound, big pictures and a big, clear view of the future. Are we all ready for tomorrow? Better be. It seems to be here today.

Originally Published